Swimming, No Sinking - Immersing Yourself In A Different Culture

“Picture yourself on a boat on a river...”

As a young child, when you first jumped off a boat into unknown waters - you might have been nervous of sharks or jellyfish, afraid of how deep or cold the water was, or whether you were able to swim back to the boat, or whether other people would notice and help you if you struggled, or even if you’d ever get back to shore again.

Once you relaxed and overcame your fears of the unfamiliar, you realised that you could float just fine, you could handle the temperature without getting hypothermia, and you were actually pretty safe. Soon, you started to notice amazing things like  the sun sparkling on the surface, the comfortable feeling of being buoyant and in control of your movements, and the curious and friendly fish that crowded around you. Suddenly, you felt very much at home and happy and knew that this was something you wanted to experience forever (or at least until your parents made you get out, because you were getting too wrinkly!)

This is the power that travelling has to immerse you in a culture. Whatever reservations “newbie” or even experienced volunteers have about setting off on a new adventure, there comes a point where you gain a much deeper insight into different cultures, and throw off all the judgements and preconceived ideas you might have had. Whether you’re in a massive bustling European city or a tiny rural village in Africa, you’ll figure out through being truly immersed in the local culture that even when we don’t share traditions, practices and language, we are still united by the fact that we are all human and we have the same basic needs. Experiencing new cultures means obtaining a better understanding of your own culture and is one of the most positive, life-altering experiences you can have.

Up until fairly recently, travelling for educational or altruistic reasons was reserved for the social elite. The average person had no direct access to knowledge of other cultures - they had to rely on the stories of the privileged few who could experience them. And as we all know, humans love to embroider their stories with fantastical elements, and these tend to grow bigger and even more fantastical in the re-telling. Stories would soon begin to circulate about the savage customs of foreigners, the unbearable weather, the terrible things they eat, the way they treat their children and old people - whatever you can think of, foreigners do it worse than you! Even in the modern era, these kinds of negative preconceived ideas can be very pervasive in popular culture. They almost act as a form of security for people who are too scared to “jump off the boat” - they can tell themselves there are man-eating sharks and giant whirlpools and icy currents just waiting to get them.

Luckily, 21st-century average young people have the opportunity to venture far away from their home towns, and as a volunteer you have the opportunity to see for yourself how the water really feels. Tourists might skim the surface and admire the view, but people who travel with a view to cultural immersion get to experience environments in a completely different way. If you are in a place where, for example, there is a language barrier, you are pushed out of your normal social comfort zone and must go to greater lengths to get basic needs met and questions answered. You learn to become way more socially assertive and empathic - there is a big difference between finding out where the local produce market is in a Tanzanian village, and what the possibly unfamiliar produce might taste like; and asking your local shopkeeper who speaks  your own language where he stocks the tagliatelle!

Another advantage of immersing yourself in different cultures is learning to listen and think before you speak and act. In modern society, we are often taught to assert ourselves, perhaps aggressively, to get our needs met as quickly and easily as possible. Think of how you are quick to call a helpline if your computer doesn’t work properly, or a complaint line if something you ordered didn’t arrive immediately. Be honest and consider how you reacted to the “faceless” voice at the other end of the line - were you a little bit impatient? Did your frustration at not getting your needs met to your liking come across on the phone? Experiencing different cultures, who may not even get basic needs met, will give you a new perspective on how you deal with people every day of your life.

The secret of immersing yourself in culture and experience is to learn to let go of the safe, comfortable boat and swim out a little bit further. Volunteers who aim to gain deeper cultural experiences are rewarded in many ways. Imagine a friend or acquaintance of yours has just returned from a trip overseas. The most obvious questions he or she would be asked are  “What did you see? Where did you go? What did you eat? What did you do?” The more important question that often gets overlooked is “Who did you meet?” If you are planning a trip overseas, spend some time focusing on how you will answer that question when you get home. Of course you will have memories and tales of beautiful scenery and exotic food, but the “Who” experiences stay with you forever.

So come on in - the water’s great!


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